Back to the Future of Internet Publishing: E-mail

By: Steve Outing

As I've noted before in this column, the World Wide Web is wonderful, but e-mail is better. For many people, e-mail is the Internet's "killer app," yet the Web gets all the hype and attention. But look at your own use of e-mail vs. the Web. What do you see? I estimate that the time I spend using e-mail is 90% compared to 10% for the Web.

There's a lot of activity going on in the e-mail world, however, and Internet publishers in the next year will be integrating e-mail and the Web more and more. A company to watch in this area is Mercury Mail of Denver, Colorado, which is developing personalized e-mail news services. The 31-person company offers several such services, free to the consumer, on its Web site. (All Mercury Mail personalized information services are supported by advertising and sponsorships.)

For example, you can subscribe to a WeatherVane service which delivers a regular e-mail weather summary and forecast for your area from The Weather Channel (available only for the U.S. at this time; international weather forecasts coming soon). A SportsWrap service delivers breaking sports news and statistics on a specified sport, with content from ESPN Sports Ticker and Reuters.

The Closing Bell e-mail service delivers closing stock prices and company news. There's a skiing service that gives you a regular conditions report on up to five selected ski areas. A SpotLite service can send via e-mail your daily horoscope, local lottery results, local TV schedules, etc. And Mercury Mail offers a nice, free personal reminder service which allows you to set up reminders about family birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

Finally, there's NEWspot, an e-mail news service that delivers commodity national and international news as e-mail messages. This is news that can be found free on the Internet in many places, and at present it's not configurable such that you can select just news on a particular topic selected by keywords. You can select International, National (U.S.), Technology, etc.

What does make NEWspot different than, say, the San Jose Mercury News' Newshound service (which delivers e-mail news based on personalized keyword profiles), is that Mercury Mail has a staff of editors who comb the incoming wires and edit down what goes out via e-mail to subscribers. They even watch television news and will on occasion summarize breaking stories as heard from broadcast sources.

What does this have to do with newspapers?

Mercury Mail recently joined forces with Tribune Media Services (TMS) to jointly develop personalized media products based on TMS content. This will allow the syndication company to incorporate e-mail capabilities into its Internet information services such as WebPoint and TV Week. The two companies also are working on development of private-label e-mail products for newspapers, according to Mercury Mail president John Funk. Initial areas for development include personalized e-mail messages for stock quotes, TV listings, horoscopes, travel information, weather, and special occasion reminders, which could be added to a newspaper's Web site.

Besides being the e-mail technology component for TMS, Funk says Mercury Mail is trying to establish relationships with newspapers as well. A newspaper might contract with Mercury Mail to develop a local, newspaper-branded e-mail delivery component of its Web site. The paper would feed its content to Mercury Mail, such that the company serves as the publisher's fulfillment house and Mercury Mail's servers do the work. But Mercury Mail is in the background and the consumer sees only the newspaper brand, Funk says.

The company is currently developing the business model for these sort of relationships, but Funk says he is willing to charge a simple transmission fee (fractions of a penny per e-mail subscriber), or share advertising revenues. In the latter, a local service can generate local advertising, which might be added to national ads sold by Mercury Mail. Local publishers can potentially add their local content to national Mercury Mail services to create co-branded, localized e-mail delivery services -- again, supported by local and national advertising revenues, which the companies split.

Advertising is an obvious source of revenue for such e-mail services, since publishers can offer advertisers the ability to target specific interest or demographic groups. A local ski report service, for instance, will be an appealing buy to the local sporting goods shop.

But personalized e-mail is also an area where you'll want to consider charging a modest fee. A service that sends a subscriber the closing stock prices of her portfolio and sends along news about the companies as the news breaks is a valuable service that probably should not be given away free, for example. An e-mail-delivered personal horoscope probably won't garner much interest unless it is free.

The future look of e-mail

Text-only e-mail is not exactly a compelling medium, particularly from an advertiser's perspective. But Funk says that limitation will disappear in the coming year as e-mail takes on a more graphic look. Already, he says, those using Netscape as a mail reader and America Online version 3.0 (coming soon) users can view inline HTML graphics in an e-mail message.

Users of Eudora, perhaps the most popular e-mail application in use by Internet users, cannot currently receive graphics directly in e-mail messages, but Eudora version 3.0 does support live HTML links within a message; click on a URL in a Eudora message and it launches your Web browser to view the page or graphic.

Funk expects to see some major changes in e-mail client software to support HTML files sent as e-mail, and some serious competition among e-mail client application developers. In the e-mail message of the near future, you'll be able to include a simple hyperlink to an image -- which is then downloaded off the Web when the message recipient clicks on the link -- or receive a graphic image on your hard disk if the sender has opted to give you the file directly.

Mercury Mail's system can detect those subscribers who have the capability of receiving their mail in HTML, which makes messages look more like Web pages. "We will provide Web links, color, bolding, italics and sizing all within our custom e-mail messages which will show more than ever that we are bringing the Web to your e-mail box," says Funk. This makes e-mail delivery sound like an effective advertising medium.

Contact: John Funk,

Why e-mail is important to newspapers' future

Consider the words of Vin Crosbie of Freemark Communications, who posted the following words to the online-news Internet list yesterday:

"Imagine if a newspaper company didn't deliver a daily paper to a consumer's home unless that consumer telephoned the newspaper's circulation department each and every single day to request it. Would consumers phone each and every day? Would that print newspaper build and maintain appreciable circulation and attract advertisers?

"That hypothetical example might appear to be ridiculous, but it is exactly the circulation model of online newspapers using Web sites."

If your newspaper new media department is not thinking about an e-mail component to its Web service, it's time to start.

San Diego SPJ online awards

The San Diego, California, chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) recently announced winners in its first new media awards competition.

San Diego Source, the Web site of the San Diego Daily Transcript, cleaned up, winning several first-place awards: Best use of graphics; Best design; Best news resource; Best public service site (for San Diego Museum of Arts site, which was created by the paper); and Best overall Web site. The judges complemented the Source site for its concise organization, clean design, easy navigation, and creativity.

The only other newspaper service to win a first-place award was San Diego Online, the Web site of San Diego magazine. It was recognized as Best public information resource.

Judges were Jodi B. Cohen, associate editor of new media, Editor & Publisher magazine, and Scott Woelfel, vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Interactive.

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